Element 19:

Addicted to Meaning

“Because of the enhanced sense of pleasure and satisfaction we get from increased dopamine production when we engage in meaningful behaviors, it could be said that dopamine helps us become addicted to meaning.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

manlookingatsky[1]In teasing out the brain structures that make up the Meaning Network, it becomes clear that emotional and somatic feedback mark meaningful data for inclusion into working memory circuits. In this regard, another question arises: What neurological system is responsible for driving organisms to continue to focus on, seek out, get pleasure from, and repeat meaningful behaviors? The answer is the dopamine reward system. Neurotransmitters perform multiple functions in the brain, and dopamine is no exception. Not only does dopamine helps us regulate working memory, but it also plays a major role in prompting us to engage in exploratory endeavors, search out novelty and seek thrills in our life, all of which enhance the learning process. Here we will look at another of dopamine’s roles in the brain – prompting us to seek out and repeat meaningful behaviors – which makes it a vital element of the Meaning Network.

It is critically important for all animals to know when they are proceeding in directions favorable to their thriving and surviving. In its wisdom, evolution developed genes that produced dopamine circuits that create an inherent drive, a compulsion if you will, so that all animals will seek out, focus on, and maintain instinctual behaviors that give them pleasure, such as eating, bonding, nesting, hoarding, imitating, and sex. We humans, who possess more-evolved brain structures than our animal cousins, can get pleasure from a wider range of more sophisticated endeavors than animals, whether it be history, technology, medicine, cooking, writing, composing music, golf, sewing, or fly-fishing. Whatever our favorite activity, the dopamine reward circuitry produces the high that supports the feelings of satisfaction that keeps us coming back again and again to endeavors that have personal meaning.

Read on to get a deeper understanding of how we get addicted to meaning

Dopamine, Endorphins and Intrinsic Motivation

Dopamine’s sensations of pleasure are also enhanced by its effect on the neuropeptide group named endorphins. Because of the profound pleasurable effects they produce, endorphins are called the brain’s natural opiates. Dopamine acts to slow the re-uptake of endorphins, dramatically prolonging pleasurable sensations when we engage in meaningful behaviors. Research has also shown that the release of endorphins, in turn, stimulates more dopamine production. These two neurochemicals then work in tandem, each supporting the other’s activity to ensure that meaningful behaviors will elicit a powerful and steady stream of pleasurable feelings.

carrot[1]The dopamine-endorphin circuits are what neuroscientists point to as the source of intrinsic motivation, which we will look at in more detail in other elements, newsletters and the book Cracking the Learning Code. When dopamine-endorphin levels are low, as we see in many depressives and bored learners, intrinsic motivation declines dramatically. Without these neurochemical systems being activated, we have no reason to repeatedly engage in behaviors that have meaning to us. On this site, when we speak of the dopamine reward center of the brain, we are including the effects of dopamine, not only by itself, but also the effect it has on our endorphin levels and emotional circuits.

Dopamine Aids Addiction to Meaning and Drugs

Because of the enhanced sense of pleasure and satisfaction we get from increased dopamine production when we engage in meaningful behaviors, it could be said that dopamine helps us become addicted to meaning. We keep seeking out and repeating meaningful behaviors because our dopamine reward circuits are stimulated by these behaviors. At some level, if we all weren’t somewhat addicted to sex and food, our species would cease to exist. The dopamine circuits are such a vital part of the Meaning Network that, if they are compromised in any way, our ability to seek out and learn from our actions can be severely compromised.

We can derive insight into dopamine’s role in the Meaning Network from the world of addiction. Drug use can have a negative impact on us because drugs can so easily and quickly stimulate our dopamine’s reward circuit. With drugs, to get a huge hit of dopamine and the high it brings, you don’t have to engage in meaningful thoughts or action; just pop a pill, smoke a toke, or shoot up. Over time, drugs have the ability to commandeer the focus-pleasure-reward circuits of the Meaning Network, forcing addicts to see the easy high they get from their drug as the most important thing in their lives. Addicted individuals whose dopamine circuits have been usurped by alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, or other drugs find that previously meaningful things, such as their jobs, families, hobbies, sex, or even food, do not have as much value as their drugs of choice. Just like test rats, addicted individuals will give up all else that has been meaningful to them to focus on and engage in drug-seeking behaviors, often until their addiction kills them.

Dopamine and Learning Institutions

neuroncellcluster[1]Educational systems that fail to provide personally meaningful information to the learner will fail to stimulate the dopamine-endorphin reward circuits. And without these circuits being activated, learning becomes not only boring but something that an individual would rather not repeat. It is interesting to note that one reason we learn so much more easily and find so many things meaningful in our youth is that children have 40 percent more dopamine receptors than adults, according to research done by neuroscientist Martina Teichior at Harvard’s McLean Hospital.

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

How the first discovery of the brain’s reward-pleasure center was made by working with rats who learned to self-stimulate their pleasure/reward circuits – until they died of starvation.

How, when dopamine-endorphin levels are low, as we see in many depressives and bored learners, intrinsic motivation declines dramatically.

How educational systems that fail to provide personally meaningful information to students will fail to stimulate their dopamine-endorphin reward circuits.

How dopamine helps us become addicted to meaning.

Why some people have what is called “reward deficit syndrome” that drives them to drinking and drugs.

How you can have your Meaning Network commandeered by repeated recreational use of drugs and alcohol.

Why children and adolescents are 500 percent more apt to have their Meaning Networks taken over by drugs and alcohol than are adults.

What the three classifications of drug seekers are and how each relates to personal meaning.

How it is estimated that 50 to 80 percent of alcoholics and drugs addicts possess a gene that prevents dopamine from binding to receptors so addicts fail to get that rush of pleasure from meaningful acts.

How one reason that an addict’s life becomes a hell on earth is because excessive drug and alcohol use wipes out dopamine receptors.

That people who suffer from a genetic predisposition or negative and unhealthy life circumstances use drugs to stimulate their Meaning Networks.

Why successful drug treatment programs must help the addict find things in his or her life other than drugs that are meaningful.

How science is helping us understand why 12-step programs work so well in helping people get off drugs and alcohol.

To help you understand more about how we become addicted to meaning, click on other Elements:

Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning

“No Meaning, No Learning”: The Meaning Network

Working Memory – Where Emotionally and Somatically Tagged Information Gets Prioritized

No Learning Without Emotion

No Learning Without Feedback From the Body

The Motivational Problem

Breeding Out Personal Meaning by Extrinsic Motivation

Why There Is No Personal Meaning in Education